The Hills Are Alive

An obscure old folk album reveals a place where stories--both spoken and sung--are priceless heirlooms

Van Holyoak is still a presence in this house. There's an oil portrait of him hanging up, and Clyde is quick to play a video copy of a documentary a Phoenix TV station did about Van before he died. Yet talking to Clyde (who no longer has the same mustache), it seems that Van's earthy talents became too big for a Clay Springs living room; instead of being handed down, they got handed out.

"It's fun when you just sit around and do it," Clyde offers, "but when people start making a big deal out of it . . . I guess no matter what you do, people expect more out of you. If you can do it, fine and dandy, but I don't expect anyone to be measured to anybody else. That's probably one reason I got plum out of it.

"Still, I don't think the heritage is going to die. It's actually up to people like me, our generation. There's some kids that have no respect for elderly people anymore. There's nothing in the world greater--you'll find out when you go and visit Don. You'll step back 50 years. And when Don's gone, that's it. He is the last of the cowboys."

The last of the cowboys looks like the last of the cowboys.
At 89, Don Jackson is tall and thin. He wears a weathered hat, checkered shirt, boots and button-fly Levi's. He will tell you that "a zipper is the sorriest thing they ever put on a pair of pants." He lives with his wife of 62 years in an adobe house he built with his dad in 1930, a house that has grown upon itself over the decades and maintains an open-door policy to multitudes of descendants. When I ask him how many great-grandchildren he has, Don can't remember. At one point, two little girls run up and wrap their arms around his wiry legs.

"Hello, Missy," he says to both of them.
Don worked most of his life for the U.S. Forest Service, building all kinds of trails and roads, crisscrossing the state by truck, car, helicopter and, mostly, on horseback.

"I don't think there's a ranger that knows Arizona better than I do," he says. Another thing he says is, "From here to Holbrook, I don't think there's a foot that can be rode on a horse that I wasn't over." As well as, "From the New Mexico line to the Coconino, I knew it as well as any man ever learned it."

A lot of things have happened to Don here in Arizona, from the mundane to the unusual.

"Well, I wouldn't call 'em unusual," he clarifies, "but most any kind of an experience, I've had it."

He knew everybody on the Arizona Town album, and, through this fellow, it's easy to see how all the stories and lore and whatnot were handed around.

He knows a lot of poetry, learned it from a book his mother had, "mostly cowboy stuff," he says. And though he knows plenty of songs, Don has always reserved those performances for the great outdoors.

"I used to sing to the stars around here all the time."
I ask to hear a poem, he tilts his head back and, without missing a beat, goes into a 10-minute soliloquy that was a staple of most Clay Springs cowboys' repertoire, "Lasca":

I want free life, I want fresh air;
And I long for the canter of the cattle,
The crack of the whip like a shot in battle,
The medley of horns and hoofs
and heads
That wars and wrangles and
scatters and spreads . . .

For verse after unfaltering verse, there is only the sound of Don's thin but constant voice, and the subtle, percussive clicking of his false teeth. He finishes, opens his eyes, and says, "Well, that's one of 'em."

When I show Don the Arizona Town album, he looks at it closely and points to names like he was going through an old yearbook.

"I knew all of these people," he says. "I knew Van ever since he was born, I knew his dad before that. Tim Kizzar, well, Tim, as far as I'm concerned, was as good a friend as I ever had. He sang songs and I listened to him, and he also had a little mill, made lumber. He was a good man.

"Bunk Pettyjohn, he was a little different. But I don't remember him too well. He used to sing all the time, he was good singer.

"Ralph Rogers' brother bought a ranch near right close to where we was at, and Ralph used to come up and sing to us all the time . . .

"On Saturdays when all the work was done, why, you'd gather together in different places, maybe the schoolhouse, nobody'd charge for anything, you'd tell stories, sing, whatever."

Then Don hands the record back to me.
Now Don's telling stories:
"I don't know if you'd call it a close call, but I remember one time I thought I heard a woman cry, like she was having a bad experience. I rode out there, that was up here about 10 miles, I rode out there and I spent an hour or two trying to locate her, and later somebody told me that the lions would cry that way to get you out where they can get you . . .

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